1. Seawater desalinator. The planet may be your playground – except for those places lacking freshwater. Indeed, some of the finest desert wildernesses in Australia, Mexico, Egypt and elsewhere are simply off-limits to the self-sufficient foot or bicycle traveler because of their lack of one of life’s most essential molecules. A water desalinator changes everything. That desert coastline along the Sea of Cortez, the wild shores of Australia’s west coast, the undeveloped beaches along the Red Sea: All become fair game for the journeys of your dreams when you’re packing along any of the reliable and lightweight desalinating devices now available on the market. Our recently featured Baja wanderer, Graham Mackintosh, has used various homemade contraptions in his desert journeys but recently invested in a Katadyn Survivor 35, a reverse osmosis hand pump capable of rendering drinkable 4.5 liters of seawater per hour.
2. Portable Miniature Chess Set. You step from the freezing, blustery darkness of a late-night blizzard into the toasty warmth of a mountain chalet – and as you drop your backpack and kick the snow from your boots, you see it’s going to be an awkward evening: A half dozen gruff Romanian mountaineers occupy the premises, staring at you wordlessly over their glasses. They’ll share their wine, you can bet, and the venison stew – but they don’t speak your language, or you theirs. How will you break the ice?! Chess, of course – assuming you’ve packed along your portable chess set – a miniature, fold-in-half system, often with magnetic pieces that cling to their squares even on the bumpiest of train rides. This makes an excellent gift for wayfarers with an affinity for sacrificing pawns, battling knights, dismounting horsemen, destroying queens and stomping on kings – and communicating across borders in the global language of the world’s greatest board game.
3. Bear Spray. Bear attacks are very rare, and even the most avid hikers may experience the terror of a bluff charge just once in their lives or never – but occasionally bears mean tooth-and-claw business. So blast ‘em with bear spray. Charging bruins – usually grizzlies – have been stopped in their tracks with a smartly placed shot of this nasty if not-permanently-damaging stuff. Some experts have warned, though, that bear spray might only make angry bears angrier. Others, meanwhile, discourage the carrying of guns for self-defense against bears, arguing that that firearms can instill overconfidence in those who carry them and indirectly increase the likelihood of a violent encounter with a bear. Whichever way goes the debate, the fact is that bear spray has been used in emergency situations, and it works.
4. Wild Edibles Foraging Guide. The world is for eating – but, beyond such no-brainers as blackberries and trout, where does one start snacking? I recall years ago, on a three-week backpacking trip in the Marble Mountains Wilderness area in northern California, while we walked the lake’s shore, my dad, with a few swipes of his hand, produced a brace of familiarly-scented greens which we would dice and sprinkle as garnish over our grilled trout: wild chives. The occasion opened my eyes to the fine foods that grow under our hiking boots and usually go unrecognized. If there’s a food-savvy wilderness traveler on your shopping list, start browsing now through the many available pocketbook guides to foraging wild edibles.
5. Soccer Ball. Friends in far-off places come easily for those who pack in their bag the simplest, most universally loved piece of sporting equipment on the planet: a soccer ball. Know someone headed for Latin America in 2012? Africa? Central Asia? Then see that they have a deflatable ball and a pump in their backpack when their plane leaves – and remind them at the security gate that where they’re going it’s called futbol.
6. Laminated Map. The most valuable item of travel is often the most disposable: the map. Unless, that is, it’s been laminated. Many stationary and office supplies shops offer this service; for a few bucks, they’ll seal a flimsy sheet of paper within a durable coat of heavy plastic, making it impervious to rain, rough handling and the wear and tear that will turn most road or trail maps into a shredded rag by a journey’s end. A map protected by lamination can be passed around and reused for years – or displayed on the wall as a poster.
7. Emergency Rations to Save a Life. What would it take to get you to chow down on dog food? A real emergency, right? Well, we’ll hope so, anyway – and that’s why a can of sloppy, wet dog food makes among the best emergency ration foods available – a source of calories that, no matter how many glasses of wine you had with your camp dinner, no matter how many miles you trekked that day, no matter how much you would like to have another bite to eat before bed, you will never plunder in a moment’s weakness unless you are absolutely starving. In the bottom of your pack it will stay – hopefully for many, many safe and happy years of traveling – and only in the darkest hour will this 20-ounce life-saver even begin to look like food. Warning: Most options are not suitable for vegetarians or vegans, though at least one all-natural product is: V-Dog.
8. To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak, by Bill Sherwonit. Trying to talk someone out of plans to climb America’s most massive mountain this year? Trying to convince a friend to come along? Either way, this dramatic page-turner about the history of Man’s relationship with Mount Denali might do the trick. A quintessential must-read in the collection of any adventure traveler, especially those with a love for Alaska, To the Top of Denali has it all: tales of the frostbite, the hunger, the snowstorms and blizzards and whiteouts, the heroic winter solo assaults, the disastrous group ascents, the tragedy, the romance, the comedy and the heroism that have unfurled on the slopes of North America’s most massive mountain. A 1990 release, To the Top of Denali remains as relevant today as the mountain itself – and, more than ever, a maturing classic in armchair adventuring.
9. Weather-proof Fire-starter. Few minor disasters in the bush will sink one’s heart quite like a cold morning without tea or coffee or a post-hike evening without dinner – and it will happen if you can’t produce a flame. Antarctic adventuress Felicity Aston (who should now be at or darn near the South Pole) recently experienced a fright when her three lighters failed to work. Fortunately, she had backup matches to light her stove, and so should anyone else who walks into the wild. So stuff a stocking this Christmas with waterproof matches (which you can make at home) – or a windproof, refillable lighter.
10. Internet Anywhere Plan. Bring that stodgy, wool-wearing, stick-carving Luddite on your gift list up to pace with the modern world with one of the many “internet anywhere” access plans now available. The concept is almost miraculous: access to email, search engines, music and all the other services and comforts of the Internet from some of the remotest places in the world. Though some will argue that such technology interferes with the very experience of travel, the advantages are hard to argue with: From afield, one may identify unknown plants, scout the terrain ahead, learn the local language or just tell Mom everything’s okay. Oh yeah – and that Luddite will also need a mini laptop computer.